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Deel 1. Early Transnational Modern Postural Yoga: From world platform to East-West exchanges

Word and Image and a World Stage

As a practice concerned mainly with meditation and breathing control techniques, yoga (a term with multiple meanings) appears in a number of classical texts, the best known being The Yoga Sutras, said to be compiled by Patanjali, and dated circa 200-400.  But it is only in later texts, such as Svātmārāma’s 15th-century Hata Yoga Pradipika, that yoga postures (āsanas) become more present. Several historical texts mention a set of 84 āsanas. An 1830 manuscript kept in the British Library is one of the earliest-known illustrations of these postures.

Sheltered space and raised platform

Detailed view of the manuscript illustrating and describing 84 āsanas with accompanying text (extracts of Jayatarama’s Joga Pradipika (1737) obtained form the sacking of the library of the Rani of Jansi in Central India in April 1858.  A world platform: Vivekananda in Chicago, 1893. His speech made a deep impression and his book Raja Yoga (partly a commentary of the Yoga Sutras, partly a manual) published in 1896, was key in the revival of yoga and its dissemination in the Western world.

Colonial Imagery and Exotic Entertainers

Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga bypasses yoga āsanas, as if the yoga renaissance needed to break with the sensational colonial imagery of Hindu ascetics and mendicants whose ash-smeared skin and postures were a subject of both fascination and fear for Western visitors. Popular descriptions highlight their exotic otherness, mixing up which Hindu sadhu and Muslim fakir was presented on beds of nails (a controversial predecessor of the mat!) In his The Mystics, Ascetics & Saints of India, J.C Oman, 1903. Colonialist clichés are merged together in this sensationalist account of Bava Lachman Dass, a ‘Hindu Fakir’ who performed in London in 1897. Note the oriental rug, turban and circus-like costume. F. Steelcroft: ‘A Living Idol’, The Strand Magazine, 1897.

Building the New India, building the new yoga

Under the sponsorship of Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV, Maharaja of Mysore, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya developed, in the yogasala (yoga hall) of Jaghanmohan palace, a type of dynamic postural yoga that eventually formed the basis for such practices as Ashtanga yoga, power yoga and vinyasa yoga, that would be developed and circulated internationally by some of his students, including K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar and Indra Devi.

Scholars have pointed to the convergence between this dynamic form of asana-based yoga and the 1930s Scandinavian gymnastic systems of Pehr Henrik Ling and Niels Bukh. Like yoga, these systems required no equipment and relied instead on the body as counterweight, making it easy to adopt across India, where they were taught through the countrywide network of YMCAs. Others have pointed out that this type of yoga was also practiced by wrestlers and bodybuilders, and that connections exist with Indian Nationalist movements: a strong Indian body would contribute to build a strong, Independent India.

What looks like a long rug with light-coloured edges placed in front of a bench organises the space in which teenage boys perform difficult postures

Hearst Gymnasium, University of California, Berkeley, 1940s.

Denmark, 1930s. Scandinavian gymnastics performance on the floor and on a gymnastics mat in the centre.

Flexible teenage boys studying in the yogasala were asked to demonstrate the dynamic sequences of āsanas devised by Krishnamacharya. The documentary film Breath of the Gods shows a restaging of one of these demonstrations. 

A carpet placed on the ground outdoors is used as mat in this 1938 film - the earliest known recording of its kind - showing Krishnamacharya and a young BKS Iyengar performing a fluid sequence of āsanas.

Demonstration of Niels Bukh gymnastics system.

Deel 2. Internationalisation & Feminisation (1950s – 1990s)

From Living Rooms to TV studios to books: Popularisation in the West

The popularisation of yoga after World War II is largely due to the efforts of several individuals who gradually built up audiences and moved yoga, over the course of several decades, from demonstrations in domestic settings with ad hoc equipment to classes in purpose-built studios complete with yoga mats. As the spaces change, so does the role of yoga: secularised and invested with health benefits, it becomes a beauty regimen of movie stars, a spiritual path for hippies and a health programme for office workers.

Yoga enthusiast and violinist Yehudi Menuhin helps B.K.S Iyengar, formerly one of Krishnamacharya’s students, then a respected yoga teacher in Pune, to gain visibility in Europe. Emphasizing the therapeutic effects of yoga, BKS Iyengar founds the most important international yoga school. Not a fan of the yoga mat invented by one of his students, he devises a set of wooden props designed to help achieve posture perfection, a trademark of his school, which he embodies in countless films and photographs. 

Life Magazine, 1956: BKS Iyengar teaches yoga to America’s high society: The dining room floor carpet acts as a yoga mat.

At the BBC in 1963: the stage as yoga mat, the yogi as living sculpture on a pedestal.

Private session at home. Iyengar and Menuhin: the guru and his student or the performer and his publicist?

Iyengar in London, 1980s: small scale yoga demonstrations in private rooms and small studios: some watch, others take part. All share the same space: yoga as sociable space. Not a mat in sight.

With mats and towels: organised, hierarchical space: yoga has become institutionalised: everyone on their own mat.

Mats and props: BKS Iyengar in Pune

Posture perfection: abstract, empty space, with no mat, emphasises the visually striking yoga of BKS Iyengar, who shows, in film after film, the power of yoga to reinvent the body of a sickly child into that of a world-respected yoga guru.

Celebrity and home study: Books play a key role in circulating yoga worldwide. Foreword by Menuhin: translated and reissued regularly, the ‘bible’ of postural yoga shows on its cover a simplified silhouette suggestive of a perfect pose.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood….

Russian-born Indra Devi (Aka Eugenia Petersen) who briefly studied with Krishnamacharya in Mysore in the 1930s, plays an important role in the introduction of yoga to Hollywood. Gloria Swanson and Marilyn Monroe among others become adepts, and pose with full make up and fetching outfits. The concept of yoga as a fitness and beauty routine for movie stars soon becomes accessible to all in her popular books: Forever Young, Forever Healthy (1955) and Yoga for Americans (1959).

Child pose on a blanket with dumbbells: Marilyn Monroe

Gloria Swanson’s leopard–print ballet flats… a very quaint reworking of the traditional animal skin yoga mat? Swanson with Devi.

Yoga for Americans, 1959. “It will help businessmen and sportsmen, public speakers, models and housewives”, writes Devi.

The Cobra pose and the swaying pose illustrated in Yoga for Americans: sharing a long-haired carpet and dressed in matching outfits: like starlets rehearsing a choreography for a Hollywood musical.

Gender shifts?

The appearance of Yoga Journal in 1975 attests to the spread of transnational postural yoga. Its early covers, featuring leotard-clad women, illustrate the shifting ‘gendering’ of yoga from a largely male-dominated practice in the early twentieth century (particularly in India) to a predominantly female one. S. Newcombe points out that in the United Kingdom between 1960 and 1980 the proportion of women yoga students grows from 70 to 90%. According to Yoga Journal in 2012, 83% of students in the US were women. While it is possible to speculate on the many reasons for this shift, its result is a durable change in the popular imaginary of the yogi from older Indian guru to slender and toned young Western woman complete with accessories and mat.

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